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The Man Who Wasn't There

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Man Who Wasn't There

Starring: Billy Bob Thorton, James Gandolfini
Director: Joel Coen
Rated: R
RunTime: 116 Minutes
Release Date: November 2001
Genres: Comedy, Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Jon Polito, Adam Alexi-Malle, Michael Badalucco, Frances McDormand, Tony Shalhoub, Ted Raimi

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
No Rating Supplied

It's 1949 in Santa Rosa, California, but for Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), the time and place is irrelevant. Ed trudges the rim of purgatory; he works among people, eats with them and is even married to one, but rarely does he actually connect with another human being. "I don't talk much," Ed says, but his internal narrative, some of which we get to hear, goes on virtually non-stop. In his flat affect, he describes those around him, rarely making overt value judgments, but almost always describing behaviors generally considered offensive.

Ed cuts hair professionally next to an affable fellow (Michael Badalucco) who chatters endlessly. "I worked in a barber's shop," Ed states during his narrative, "but I never considered myself a barber." After a long, dreary day of non-barbering, he returns home to his alcoholic wife Doris (Frances McDormand). Although some measure of tenderness exists between the two (he appears nearly content while gently shaving her legs in the tub), Ed has not had sex with Doris in a long time.

Doris has not sat idly by, electing instead to have an affair with Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), her boss at Nirdlinger's Department Store. Ed is fully aware of the relationship, but does nothing about it until a customer with a bad rug (Jon Polito) tells him about dry cleaning, a futuristic way of cleaning clothes using chemicals instead of water ("No shrinkage!"). During an after-hours meeting with the man, Ed is put off when the fast talker makes a pass at him, but remains in the room, intrigued at the notion that he, for $10,000, could become a silent partner in the cutting edge world of dry cleaning. To raise the money, he comes up with a simple, sweet idea: He'll blackmail Big Dave over his affair with Doris.

The blackmail plotline twists and turns appropriately enough for a noirish, Hitchcockian thriller. Far more intriguing, though, is the drama in Ed's head. Can a being so riddled with angst, so disconnected, so utterly lost, find a way to rejoin his brethren? Outside Ed is quiet, but you can almost hear the soul inside shouting "Oh brother, where art thou?"

Movies by the Coen brothers almost always plant a memorable image or two in the permanent records section of your head. Images like John Goodman's head popping out of a hole in the ground in "Raising Arizona" or the flaming hotel hallway from hell in "Barton Fink." Images like The Dude floating down a bowling alley to the psychedelic strains of "Just Dropped In" during "The Big Lebowski," or George Clooney being dragged backwards out of a moving train car in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "The Man Who Wasn't There" offers a series of arresting visuals that play off the film's dramatic lighting and superb black and white photography. From the twirling mini-barber pole at the beginning of the film to the prison objects hovering on a sea of white at the end, the production looks absolutely great.

Thank God for the pretty pictures, too, because "The Man Who Wasn't There" adopts the deliberate pacing of Ed, which makes for some slow going. During the sluggish parts, I had time to savor the cinematography, the surface plot, the superb acting (especially by Thornton, who underplays his role masterfully) and Ed's quiet desperation while mulling over some recurring questions about the Coens.

I wonder if the brothers view their characters (and the rest of humanity, for that matter) with affection or contempt. They seem more clinical than ever this time around, leaning too much on their actors to humanize their carefully arranged displays (Even "Fargo," the Coen film most embraced by the general public, was populated by a series of wicked caricatures, with Frances McDormand giving a performance so exceptional that it warmed up the whole film).

In the latter portion of "The Man Who Wasn't There", attorney Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) relates a theory that the closer you study something, the less you will see. Could this be a suggestion from the Coens that we should stop trying to figure them out and simply enjoy their latest exercise in style over substance? Or are they artists with important things to say who toss in glib statements and outrageous visuals to brighten up their grim view of the human condition?

I lean more towards the former than the latter, but remain a Coen brothers faithful either way. Given the choice of having Joel and Ethan test my patience and watching your average pre-chewed Hollywood offering, I'll swallow an aspirin and go with the Coens any day.

Copyright 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott

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